Monday, June 3, 2013

3 Things I'm (Re-)Learning about Body Image

I thought I got over this in high school. I really did. Body image. That nasty issue I typically associate with the teenage years. To be honest, I really don't like this topic because I think it can be a bit cliche for the female crowd.

However, I find that this issue creeps back around as we women start having babies. From the time a woman announces her pregnancy, it seems that every friend, family member, acquaintance, and stranger feels the divine right to comment on her figure:
"Oh, you look huge!" (Gee... thanks?)
"Wow, you only look big from the side!" (Ok, then-- just stand behind me.)
"I think it's a girl-- your face looks rounder." (Old wives' tale, by the way.)
"I think it's a girl-- you're carrying the weight all around your middle instead of out in front." (Another old wives' tale. Why are baby girls always to blame for the worst preggo symptoms? Not cool, old wives.)
"Are you sure you're not having twins??" (Nope. But thanks anyways.)

And then-- after you have the baby, it seems like it's a race to get the weight off as quickly as possible. You expect to snap back to normal... but regardless of the amount of kale you consume or the number of trips you take to the gym, it seems that some things have snapped back to the wrong places.

About a week ago, a friend made a fairly innocuous comment about my body. It doesn't matter what the comment was or why it was made-- what matters is that I allowed it to seep into my conscious, to cloud my vision every time I looked into the mirror. I should have shut it out. I should have remembered Psalm 139 and the words David wrote about God's intentional creation of me. I should have remembered that my God is bigger than a foolish, vain, temporal wish to look a certain way. But, I didn't. And I let it drag down my soul for a time.

And then, while corralling my fidgety little girl at the grocery store, I saw her: slightly greenish pallor, hips pelvic bone and angular shoulders protruding from underneath her sweatpants and long sleeves despite the 90 degree Houston heat. A skeleton with clothes. She had one banana in her cart.

And then, by God's grace, perspective snapped back into focus.

I don't want my daughter to inherit a nagging worry about her figure. I'm sure Hollywood will drum up quite enough insecurity; I don't want her to get that from me, too. From me, I want her to gather the tools and the strength to combat the inevitable body image enemy. But first, I have to fight this enemy myself. Which brings me to my first point:

1. The body image issue is, in fact, an enemy and it is from The Enemy.
We like to think that pride and insecurity are antonyms. Not true. Paradoxically, these two vices are two sides of the very same coin-- they both create an unhealthy focus on self. And, if the Enemy can turn one's thoughts inward, he has just created an idol.
The remedy? I fix my gaze on things bigger than myself. It is when I look to the immovable strength of the mountains, the vastness of the sky, the expanse of the ocean that I, like Job, think "Who am I?" And, this is not a self-loathing; on the contrary, this is when I feel most self-aware, most energized. When I know that I am part of something much greater than myself, I seem to forget that maybe I don't have 6-pack abs. In fact, this notion even seems silly. Insignificant.

2. Pursuit of Skinny and Pursuit of Health are NOT the same thing.
I hate Pinterest. Actually, that's a lie-- I love Pinterest. What I hate is when I search for work-out routines on Pinterest and half the images that appear are smatterings of uber-toned female body parts. Usually, it isn't even an entire body. Just a leg or a stomach or a bicep or a booty. And people call that inspiring??
Give me a whole woman to model after. One who pursues health-- in body, mind, and spirit. It is good to eat right, to exercise. But, it's the mindset that matters.
One who pursues skinny embarks on an endless chase that never results in satisfaction. There is always something to fix, a new fad diet to try. It is a persistent nagging that you aren't good enough, you'll never be good enough, why can't you just be like (fill in the blank with perceived "perfect" person). It is Envy and Discontent and Pride gripping your heart with their greedy talons.
On the other hand, pursuit of health is about growth, discipline. The apostle Paul deals with this a bit throughout his letters (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Hebrews 12:1) -- he uses physical exercise as a symbol for spiritual training. And, when we experience what God has to offer our physical bodies through exercise and eating right, we have a more tangible example of how to work for His Kingdom. Not to mention, we have more energy to do what He calls us to do.
So, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:31, "Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God." In the context of body image, I think this means that I watch my mindset. I pursue healthy; I train myself body, mind, and soul so that not a day goes to waste.

3. No one is "perfect."
It's true. Unless she is airbrushed. Or has had extensive plastic surgery. (In which case, I argue that that person should probably garner more sympathy than admiration.)
As there is nothing new under the sun, the chasing after a "perfect" figure is not new. Different societies throughout history have set "perfect" feminine body types-- and women throughout history have undergone everything from foot-binding to neck rings to ultra-tight corsets to maintain a given "ideal" image.
But, quite frankly-- it is the imperfections that make us each beautiful. When a great work of art is copied over and over again, it becomes cliche, dull, unremarkable. When I try to fit a particular stereotype, I am simply aiming to be a copy. And there's nothing particularly beautiful about a re-print. Nothing to talk about, to admire.
As David writes in Psalm 139, I am "fearfully and wonderfully made" by the Creator of the heavens, the galaxies. I was "skillfully wrought." And, by looking to a man-made version of beauty, I miss true artistry.

And so-- I turn my eyes outward and upward. I remember that my Creator made me whole-- body, mind and spirit. I remember that I am the way I am on purpose, for a purpose. And it is then that the Gospel of peace renews me. No longer do I slough through my day utterly discontent. I am made in the image of the God of the Universe, and that is a perfectly beautiful thought.

Question for my readers: When do you struggle with this issue the most? How do you combat it?